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1. Shaping environmental policy

Until the late 1960s, no European country had a clearly defined environment policy. Over the last 30 years, however, significant progress has been made in setting up a comprehensive system of environmental controls in the European Union. The issues now covered range from noise to waste prevention, from chemicals to air particles, from bathing water to an EU-wide network for dealing with environmental disasters, such as oil spills or forest fires.

1972 Paris Summit: It was acknowledged that particular attention should be paid to the environment in the context of economic expansion and improving the quality of life. The result was the first “environment action plan”. Several similar multi-annual programmes and a series of directives followed.

1987 The Single European Act: The turning point for EU environment policy, bringing it into the Community treaties for the first time.

1992 The Maastricht Treaty: This went further, upgrading environmental protection to full-scale status.

1999 Amsterdam Treaty: Strengthened the legal basis for greater environmental protection and the promotion of sustainable development across the EU.

Today, European Union environmental policy is based on the idea that high environmental standards stimulate innovation and business opportunities. Economic, social and environmental policies are closely integrated. The EU’s goal is to provide an adequate level of protection throughout the EU, without disregard to local circumstances and economic constraints.

All policy is based on the “polluter pays” principle. The polluter may “pay” either through investment in higher standards or as a tax on business or consumers for using an environmentally hazardous product. Payment may also involve the requirement to take back, recycle or dispose of products after use. The Commission has also proposed that illegal emissions of hazardous pollutants in the air, water or soil, illegal shipment and dumping of waste and the illegal trade of endangered species should be made punishable by criminal sanctions. Further steps are under discussion.

All in all, the environment is perhaps the most difficult key policy sector in the EU to control. While member states can share the pleasures of Europe’s natural beauty, they must also share such burdens as acid rain, polluted water, contaminated air, and waste disposal. Extreme weather conditions have also become more prevalent, illustrating that climate change is a problem which concerns citizens and environmental policies at all levels.

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